After Complaints, School Com Members Decline To Acknowledge Policy Violation

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Monomoy Regional High School

Entrance to Monomoy Regional High School.

HARWICH – Complaints against two Monomoy Regional School Committee members remain unresolved after both declined to acknowledge that they'd violated the group's conduct policy.

Karen Ryder and Sharon Stout were accused by fellow committee member Nancy Scott and eight Monomoy Regional High School department heads of violating sections of the committee's norms and protocols at a March 23 meeting. During a curriculum presentation, Ryder and Stout allegedly violated the policy by the tone of their questions and in their continued criticism of the decision to drop government as a required course, an issue the committee had previously voted on.

Committee member Terry Russell was also the subject of a complaint in the teachers' letter over his treatment of one of the teachers making the presentation. However, during an executive session held at the April 13 school committee meeting, the committee voted unanimously that Russell's comments had been misinterpreted and he did not violate the norms and protocols.

The complaints against Ryder and Stout were discussed in public session at their request. Both defended their comments as being within their responsibilities as school committee members to ask questions and state their opinions. Their comments were not meant as criticisms of the teachers, they said. Stout said she was caught off guard by elements of the presentation and “made a passionate statement I would do differently if I could redo it.” She added that had the material been presented to the school committee ahead of time, she would probably have responded differently.

Because the letter from the department heads, which requested an apology, did not make charges against specific school committee members, Chairman Brian Widegren said he requested that Scott bring a complaint naming Stout and Ryder. Although it was obvious the teachers' letter was about the two members, he said, he wanted a more formal statement of the alleged violations of the norms and protocols, which governs the conduct of school committee members.

At the root of the situation is the decision by administrators and teachers to make the high school government class an elective rather than a required course, and only offer it once a year. Ryder and Stout opposed the move, but it was approved by a majority of the committee.

The norms and protocols adopted by the committee last October call on members to accept majority votes of the committee. Ryder said that doesn't preclude continuing to hold a different position; she cited footnotes in sample protocols and best practices published by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees explaining that supporting the official position of a committee “does not preclude principled disagreement or future attempts to change policy, but simply not to undermine the work of the majority's policy of the district.”

Ryder said she felt she was being told not to ask questions. “I didn't see asking questions as out of line,” she said.

Other school committee members did not disagree, but said it was the tone of Ryder and Stout's comments that violated the norms and protocols.

“The words we say are powerful,” said Scott. “The tone we use toward people when we speak is powerful.”

“There is a line between what is appropriate to ask and what's not appropriate to ask,” said committee member Jackie Zibrat-Long. “We're here to speak for the public, but there's a right way to do it.”

“Were not here to badger them with questions,” said member Stephen Davol. “It was not our finest hour at the last meeting.”

Ryder and Stout were also accused of violating a section of the norms and protocols that call for committee members to channel questions and requests for information through the administration. Stout said she might have done that had the March 23 presentation been provided to committee members beforehand, and made a request that in the future, information to be presented at meetings be sent to school committee members at least a week ahead of time.

She also said that she sent a letter to high school social studies department head David Alexander apologizing for using the term “disgraceful” in her March 23 comments, but said it was directed not at teachers or the department but at the cutback in the frequency the government class will be offered. She said she reached out to Superintendent Scott Carpenter to mediate the dispute with the teachers, and while she had a “very congenial meeting” with him no steps were taken toward mediation.

Stout said she saw the situation as a learning and growth experience. “Could we all do better? We can all do better,” she said.

She also noted that this was the first time the norms and protocols had been invoked regarding school committee members. The document, said Scott, was “not law,” but rather an internal guideline as to how committee members should behave at meetings.

Widegren said the language used at the March 23 meeting undermined the policy. Although he pressed Stout, specifically, to acknowledge that there was a violation of the policy, she did not do so.

Carpenter urged the committee members to understand the “power of dynamics” at play when teachers are before them, especially when questions are asked. How those questions are framed can make a difference, he said.

“I think that some of that got lost, and it's unfortunate,” said Carpenter.